REPORTER: Could your life be more perfect?
CARLING BASSETT: No way! How could it be?
It's as though she made a wish on a star and the wish came true. Make that several wishes. Carling Bassett is cute, her father is a millionaire, she has been in a movie and at 15 she's a sensational tennis player, certain, some people say, to become No. 1 in the world. Her native Canada considers her a national treasure. Her friends cherish her insouciance, her brashness, her sassy personality.
Her father, John Bassett, a force in the development of World Team Tennis, the World Hockey Association, the World Football League and now the U.S. Football League—he's the principal owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits—recently asked Carling what she would do if she could no longer play tennis.
"What if you couldn't make movies?"
"I'd go skiing," she said blithely.
Carling burst upon the tennis world this past April when she went to the finals of the $250,000 WTA Championships at Amelia Island, Fla. With her father and mother sitting at courtside and a national television audience looking on in disbelief, she had Chris Evert Lloyd, her opponent, dead in her sights before tripping up on her own inexperience. Despite having led 4-2 in the third set, she lost 3-6, 6-2, 7-5—but won an enormous amount of respect.
"I didn't know you were that good," TV announcer Bud Collins said to her afterward.
"Neither did I," said Carling.
Ted Tinling, the ubiquitous tennis-clothes designer and information booth for the women's tour, says, "Carling is the hope of the future." Her agent, Ray Benton, says, "Carling will transcend women's tennis. She'll be a star in the complete sense of the word." Don Fontana, a former Canadian Davis Cup player who has watched Carling grow up, says, "The difference between her and the others is that when a set is five-all and tight as hell, she loves it." Greg Breunich, one of her platoon of coaches at the Bradenton, Fla. tennis Gulag known as Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy—which has been Carling's home nine months a year for the past four years—says, "Within two years Carling will be the best in the world."
It took her only four months from the time she turned professional in January to rise from the 100s in the world standings to No. 22. Over that span Carling, whose strengths are her footwork and a powerful forehand, defeated a gallery of the best women players in the world, among them Hana Mandlikova, Bettina Bunge and Virginia Ruzici. "She keeps surprising us," says Bollettieri. "Her performance at Amelia Island was six to 12 months ahead of schedule. Carling may have a few setbacks, which would be natural, but she's going to get there."
Getting there is what Carling wants, and in some ways it would seem unfair for her to have her wish, because she has had the best that money can buy in terms of coaching, travel and experience. She's also a member of an unusual family, a group of overachievers who groove on competition and live for each other. If love conquers all, Carling is a cinch. Her older sister, Vickie, says, "The love in this family is incredible. No matter where you are, you always know that if you're in trouble, the family will be there. And not just be there, but be there."
In Toronto, the Bassetts' hometown, they are sometimes referred to as Canada's Rockefellers, although at a glance they seem more like the Kennedys—not as much money as the Rockefellers but more obvious get up and go. The Bassetts love conflict, scuffles, struggles, anything with a beginning and an end, anything with a winner and a loser. "I always have to compete with somebody or something," says Carling. "That's the best part of life—competing and winning. Of course, the worst thing is competing and losing."
To understand Carling you have to know her 44-year-old father, the third in a line of forceful John Bassetts. His grandfather was the publisher of the Montreal Gazette; he used to hold his grandson on his lap and tell him stories about competition in the newspaper business. His father, now 67 and a forceful, crusty businessman who is sometimes, but never to his face, called Big Dome by his associates, moved the family base to Toronto, became publisher and then owner of The Toronto Telegram, went into radio and television, had a piece of Toronto's famed Maple Leaf Gardens and the NHL Maple Leafs and from 1971 to '74 owned the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
The third John Bassett isn't Jr. or the Third; all three have different middle names. "I know a lot of Juniors who don't do anything on their own," he says. "I don't like to be lumped with them." He grew up imbued with the family's drive, and he has the things associated with North American aristocracy: good looks, boundless confidence, wealth, power. His love affair with sports began when he was a schoolboy hockey player. He was a goalkeeper and a good one: The Maple Leafs, in which the family did not then have a financial interest, wanted to sign him to a contract at 15, but Bassett's father squelched the deal. John played Canadian-style football in prep school and for one year in college, at the University of Western Ontario, before injuries obliged him to quit. At the same time he developed into a world-class tennis player; at 20 he was a member of Canada's Davis Cup team. A decade later, playing squash, he went to the semifinals of the 1969 Canadian Open.
During his early and mid-20s, he was a reporter for the family paper in Toronto and evinced an old-fashioned nose for the sordid and sensational; he still talks of having covered Canada's last double execution by hanging. He soon moved into the management end of the family communications conglomerate and while still in his 20s produced and starred in a teenage show similar to Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He brought the hit musical Hair to Toronto. He's blessed, or afflicted, with huge amounts of nervous energy and an insatiable need to be or to build the best—or at least to try. "The hardest thing in the world for John to do would be to wait for a bus," says Peter Eby, his friend for 35 years. "He'd hop on one going the opposite way, just to get moving."
In the 1970s the restless Bassett was on the front edge of the expansion that radically changed the face of professional sports in North America. His leagues eventually folded or were absorbed, but their impact remains. Bassett is particularly remembered for the landmark deal he made in 1974 when he paid $3 million to persuade Miami Super Bowl stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to jump to the WFL. Insiders also recall that after the financially bleeding WFL lay down and died, Bassett, despite the near bankruptcy of his franchise, paid of all the debts he had incurred.
Bassett is once more on the bus, headed to who knows where, with the USFL. For such consumed people there are always projects: a new league, producing a movie, developing a condo, making your daughter a world champion.
Although Bassett denies it, there's little doubt that Carling is his favorite project. Perhaps he remembers his own frustration at 15, when his promising hockey career was arbitrarily terminated by his father. He muses about ways to motivate her, and he can recite from memory her tournament results of the past five years. Even though his legs ache from damage done by a lifetime in athletics—he has had four knee operations—his great joy is rallying with her on a tennis court. Father and daughter are a link to the past, a bridge to the future.
Carling has been rising through the tennis ranks while making do on a $10-a-week allowance granted by her father, and throughout her whirlwind journey, replete with national television interviews and an almost daily measure of excitement, she has remained unspoiled and un-fazed by the commotion, as though she had expected it all along. Half of the time she walks around like a spaced-out Valley Girl, showing up for the German Open in May, for example, with everything but her rackets. About once a week an instructor at Bollettieri's will yank her off the court because her bubble gum has burst all over her face. Her cluttered room at the tennis academy dormitory has 15-year-old girl written all over it. She's glib with interviewers, a bit of a smart aleck who thinks she has all the answers—and can't wait for the questions. "Carling's a sophisticated kid," says Ricky Brown, her favorite guy at the moment, who's all of 16.
Somehow she balances it out—budding superstar, world traveler and plain everyday teen-ager. On the court she's a workaholic, though she tries to give the impression that she's just singing in the rain. "When I was a kid," she says, "I burned myself to the ground every day." That's supposed to mean that she doesn't work as hard now, but, if anything, she's working harder than ever. And yet she isn't a tennis machine, oblivious to the outside world. For one thing, she's at that stage where she's absolutely fascinated by boys. And at the tennis academy she's mischievous, a minor miscreant. Recently Carling bought a Siberian Husky surreptitiously. Nobody knew she was keeping it in in her room until the dog began howling one night. That woke the entire camp, but Carling slept on blissfully. Every so often, smoke will pour from her dorm window. "Carling's cooking popcorn again," someone will say. Chip Brooks, a camp instructor, says, "Carling's still a kid. That's a quality I hope she'll never lose."
Carling hopes so, too. "I don't want to grow up too fast," she says. "That's the difference between me and some of the other young pros. They've grown up really quickly. I like to be treated as a kid."
Her favorite pastime at the moment is talking to boys. Her second favorite thing is talking about them. Academy employees joke about her "boyfriend of the hour." Brown, top-ranked in the 16s, was at the head of her list for a time. Then it was Aaron Krickstein, best in the 18s. Now Brown is No. 1 again.
Carling says she likes her men "young." She says, "They look fresher." She prefers the cool, detached sort of 16-year-old, preferably one without braces. "I always have to like tennis players," she says. "Is that weird or what?" She steals a glance at the court where Ricky is hitting with Brian Flowers of New Jersey. Ricky is wearing an imitation Rolex watch that he bought for $35. Neither player has on a shirt. Carling sighs.
Suddenly she spots a girl at a nearby pay telephone, her hand covertly shielding the mouthpiece. "Are you talking to that jerk again?" yells Carling, causing the girl to squirm, blush and mouth silently, "Shhhhhh." Carling keeps yelling. The girl puts her hand over the phone and whispers, "It's my father." But Carling knows better: "It's that guy. She just tells people it's her father so she can take the call."
Carling is a little mournful at the moment. A big date for the academy kids is when everybody piles into the camp van and heads to a nearby mall for some handholding at the movies. Now Brown has asked her to the prom at the local high school. It's a dream come true, but—gross!—she has to turn him down. There's a tennis exhibition in Japan. "I have to go to Japan," she says, making Japan sound like an inedible vegetable. "You don't know how mad I am. I never went to a prom. I looked forward so to getting a dress and getting all fixed up and having the boy take me to dinner and all that stuff, and now I can't go."
The mournful mood passes. Carling expounds on a theory about men. "I read that they reach sexual maturity at 18," she says. "Hey, Brian," she calls out to Flowers, who's 16, "when does a guy reach his sexual maturity?" A middle-aged mother walking nearby does a double take and then lets out a muffled laugh.
"I don't know," says Brian, wrinkling his forehead. "Maybe 17?"
"Make that 17" says Carling, returning to her courtyard conversation. Then she confides, "The boys are starting younger now, you know, fooling around. So are the girls. Of course, I don't have any firsthand knowledge." She waves a hand airily, a movie star playing a ripe scene. On the hand, a ring flashes. She bought it in Hong Kong, after long and spirited haggling, for $14.
Normally John Bassett dresses casually—sport shirts, slacks, loafers, that sort of thing. "I only wear a suit when I go to the bank," he says. "My hair is short when I'm raising money and long when I'm spending it." He had gone into the WFL, the WHA and WTT in partnership with members of his family, primarily his father, and the Eaton family, another prominent Toronto clan, but the mounting bills scared the others off. Bassett decided to make a stand on his own; he bade farewell to the others, cashed in his stock in the family enterprises and headed south. He has been largely based in the U.S. ever since. Much of his working time now is spent in Tampa with the Bandits or racing around the country on USFL business, but he also has an office in Toronto. When he's not looking after his sports enterprises or monitoring Carling's tennis progress, he keeps track of the four movies he has produced, none a rousing success, though Carling's performance in one of them, Spring Fever (its original title was Sneakers), which starred Susan Anton, moved The Hollywood Reporter to say, "Its main asset...is a winsome young actress named Carling Bassett who captivates us without halfway trying."
He has a real estate development in Panama City, Fla., owns a ritzy complex of condominiums called The Players Club on Longboat Key outside Sarasota and is investigating further deals with Stephen Arky, a partner in the Bandits. "It's a movie," Bassett says of his fast-forward life, "but nobody would believe it."
Bassett is a maverick. Often after a long day with the Bandits, he sleeps in the Hideout, the coaches' modest offices, where a foundling German shepherd mix named Bandit keeps him company. When he was in prep school he spent most weekends "gated"—marching punishment tours around the school grounds. When he wrote a newspaper column in Toronto he used The Rebel as his pen name. When he was with the WHA he was suspended for six months for raiding amateur teams for players, and already USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons has fined him $10,000 for criticizing league officiating. In Tampa there's a rivalry growing between Bassett's Bandits and the NFL Buccaneers, owned by Hugh Culverhouse. The Tampa press has taken to the newcomer, putting down Culver-house as "Mr. C," while Bassett comes off as the guy in the white hat.
Bassett breezed into Tampa—with Burt Reynolds, another Bandit investor (5%), out in front generating publicity—and took the town by storm. Wide Receiver Danny Buggs terms fan support "an epidemic." Twenty-two thousand season tickets were purchased, a Bandit poster featuring Loni Anderson, Burt's girl, hangs all over town, and Bandit souvenirs are outselling those of the out-of-season Bucs.
Tampa is a pro wrestling center, and Bassett's free-spirited operation fits in just fine. Bandit business manager Ralph Campbell sports an outrageous rattlesnake hat. It has a snakeskin brim and, on the front, a large rattler baring its fangs. The franchise's minority owners, most of them locals, wear satin Bandits jackets to games and smoke thin cigars. When the Bandits played in Washington and some unruly fans pounded on the wall of the visiting owners' box, one of the Bandit stockholders knocked down the wall. "Thar," he said to the astonished group on the other side. "Now you won't have to pound no more."
"The NFL has a great big gray-flannel executive IBM image," says Bassett. "Our image is dirt kicking, down home. We're having a ball." Dirt kicking? Down home? For a millionaire? The clothes may not match, but they fit. Bassett is consistent in his lack of pretension. He shovels snow in Canada, drives a '77 Ford station wagon in Florida and loves spareribs, an egalitarian food if ever there was one. Naturally, strangers suspect he's a rich phony, but you keep biting his quarters and find they don't bend. He's so approachable that when he was a patient at a Toronto hospital about to undergo a skin cancer operation, the attendants wheeling his gurney, aware he was a member of the hospital's board, began telling him their union problems.
Bassett and his wife, Susan, have four children. Johnny is 22 and works at CFTO, the family's Toronto television station. Vickie, 20, a down-to-earth student at her father's alma mater who is still comfortable with a knapsack, is an intern this summer as a reporter for The Toronto Sun. Then came Carling, and Heidi, who's 13 and worried. She's an accomplished figure skater, but bored with it. One night at dinner her disgruntlement became obvious, and her father tried to soothe the child he calls Heids. In a soft, solicitous voice Bassett said, "You don't have to keep skating. If you're tired of it, Heids, give it up." This might seem a normal, comforting statement for a father to make. But for Heidi it was like the Pope telling a priest he could throw away his clerical collar. "But I rode horses and I gave that up," she wailed. "I played tennis and I gave that up. If I give up skating, what will I do?"
"You don't have to do anything," said her father.
Johnny piped up, "Remember that, Heidi, when you do give it up and he starts to yell."
"I just want each of them to have something they're good at," the father explains.
The Bassett kids, especially Johnny and Vickie, help keep their father in line, shooting his balloon full of holes whenever it begins to swell. He's a particularly easy target when he starts stewing over the inconsequential. One day at the Toronto airport, fully 45 minutes before departure, he and Vickie were waiting in line for tickets when he noticed a cluster of idle airline clerks at another counter. He raced over but was told that that counter was for passengers already ticketed, information which prompted arm waving and muttering about inefficiency and ineffectiveness and injustice and....
"Dad," interrupted Vickie dryly, "go buy an airport."
The prime responsibility for managing the emotional maelstrom that is John Bassett belongs to Susan, who is what he is not: well organized and socially graceful. But beneath the amiability is a strong will. During a tumultuous period in their marriage, when teams and leagues were folding and a red sea was flowing from the bank books, Bassett grew furious one morning when a hard-boiled egg she cooked for him turned out to be soft.
"You can't even cook an egg," he yelled, throwing it at her. She dodged; the egg splattered on the refrigerator.
"And clean that up," he added, marching out in triumph.
For days the congealed egg remained on the refrigerator door. Susan invited friends into the kitchen for lunch, for tea, or just to chat. Everyone looked at the egg on the refrigerator. It became the talk of Toronto. Finally Bassett gave in. He got a scraper and peeled off the mess.
Bassett's impatience was responsible for Carling's name. He and Susan, who is related to the Carlings, the Canadian brewing family, had no female names ready when the baby arrived. Bassett shrugged his shoulders. "Name her Carling," he blurted.
On Hilton Head Island, S.C., Bassett is in the first stages of high anxiety an hour before a limousine is to arrive to take him to the airport. He has just spent three days at Hilton Head with Susan and Carling. Now Bassett is worried that the limo won't show. No reason. Just worried. Twenty minutes before the hour is up he is outside, walking back and forth.
This was to have been an idyllic vacation with Susan and Carling. He hadn't even brought along the briefcase that serves as his mobile office and as a compendium of his life, crammed as it is with everything from his passport and birth certificate to bankbooks and legal pads tattooed with arcane numbers relating to various projects. The briefcase is being airlifted to meet him at his next destination, and for the last two days Bassett has been furiously scribbling notes on scratch paper. Idyllic is not his style.
In some circles Bassett is regarded as only a fair businessman. Too many peaks and valleys. More than once the Bassetts' outwardly privileged existence has been precariously mortgaged. Once a boyfriend's father sat Vickie down and lectured her about megabuck economics and where her father went wrong. "He always puts up his own money," the man said, adding that the first rule is to use someone else's dough for the risky part. "He thought he was doing me a favor," Vickie recalls. "All I could think was, I'm glad we're the way we are, instead of like you.' " Says Eby, "John's a shooter. He goes for it."
Waiting for the limo at Hilton Head, with Carling sitting nearby listening to her tape player, Bassett is talking about family, money and the entrepreneurial spirit.
"I don't know what my family thinks of me," he says. "Maybe that I'm bright. Probably that I'm rash and fairly irresponsible because I take big gambles. I'm different." Bassett has two brothers. Doug, 43, wears a suit and tie every day and runs the family enterprises in Canada. David, 41, a freewheeler, lives in Nassau and devotes himself to tennis, swimming and slow breathing after being hospitalized years ago because, by all accounts, the pressure of being a Bassett overwhelmed him. The condition was rectified by medication, rest and a life of complete leisure. David is remembered fondly around Toronto. Once at a stockholders' meeting, someone asked him what his role was with the family corporation. David said cheerfully, "They pay me well never to darken their doorstep."
At a break in her father's conversation, Carling says plaintively, "Dad, do you have to go?"
"Yeah, Car-Car, I have to," answers Bassett.
It's obvious that there is deep affection between Bassett and each of his children; family friends agree that Carling devoted herself to tennis in part to please her father. Carling never leaves a room without first giving him a peck on the cheek. He in turn has been known to rise at 5 a.m. and drive the 100 miles round trip from Tampa to Bradenton just to say goodby to her before leaving on a business trip.
"The good thing about being an entrepreneur is you have your independence," he says, "but it's tough on the family. I'm sure Susan would rather I had a regular job. I don't know what I'll be doing six months from now, much less two years from now." Carling is listening attentively. "Hopefully," says her father with a chuckle, "we won't be broke."
This distresses Carling. Her father tends to exaggerate—last Christmas, for example, he announced the family could lose their Toronto home if the football team, a movie and a condominium project did not work out. The other Bassett kids are pretty blasé about such remarks—Dad always seems to come through in the end—but Carling, who is just discovering money, takes such things seriously. Hearing her father talk about going broke, she says seriously, "Don't worry, Dad, you can have all my money."
"No," he says solemnly. "That goes to your account. You've got the best deal in the world. I do all the paying, and you do all the collecting."
Carling laughs, but she's taken with her own suggestion. Only half kidding, she says, "It'll be great. You can come and live in my house when you get old and wrinkled and can't walk down the steps. It'll be like South Fork in Dallas."
"North Fork" for the Bassetts is in a suburb of Toronto. There are so many athletic trophies around that you might be in a Hall of Fame. The pictures on the walls don't suggest the intensity of the family's affection. They're full of lone men, lone women. A girl sits scrunched up, hugging herself. A hockey player, face unseen, laces up skates. A boy looks through a window. Only in the kitchen are there snapshots of family groups, usually mugging: Susan hugging Carling while Carling sticks out her tongue at the camera. On the refrigerator are decals: SUPERMAN, HAWAII, MONTE CARLO, USFL. And, hardly noticeable, a tiny heart the size of a fingernail. Some nights Bassett goes to sleep while downstairs Vickie plays the piano and Carling picks on a guitar.
But while Bassett is proud of all his kids, the older two in a sense have not reflected their father's restless urge to do, to accomplish. At the start, they were Bassetts through and through, competitive whirlwinds who even had boxing matches with each other. Bassett built a hockey rink for Johnny in the backyard and stayed up nights icing it over. Later he arranged for Johnny to play in a couple of exhibition games with the Birmingham Bulls, Bassett's team in the WHA. And Vickie could do everything well: hockey, soft ball, cross-country. Her father still thinks Vicks, as he calls her, could be better at tennis than Carling. But the older kids declared their independence. Maybe it was the difference in generations, but they got tired of being pushed and sat down in the middle of the road.
Now, on those infrequent occasions when Johnny and Vickie go down to the family tennis court behind the Toronto house, they realize that back up the hill he's itchily watching them. Soon the door will open, and out he'll come, a silly look on his face. He'll walk down the pathway, feigning lack of interest, like a cagey dog about to do something he shouldn't. He'll stop to examine some bushes, poking around with concern, and then linger at the swimming pool, peering thoughtfully. Finally he'll arrive at the court and stand there silently. A few minutes later, he'll be behind his kids, telling them earnestly, "Hit up on the ball.... Get your racket back.... Step into it...."
"Dad," one of them will yell, "will you shut up?"
He can't help himself. Faced with unused potential, he's like a bird dog around feathers, but when he starts in with his spiel about how practice makes perfect, Vickie or Johnny will mock him.
"You guys have no concept of reality," Bassett will tell them irritably.
"Yeah," Vickie will say. "But who needs it?"
Yet she admits she has lain awake nights thinking about things she ought to do with her life. And Johnny talks with pride of the 87-hour work week he put in preparing a rock concert for CFTO. Neither has really gotten away from father.
Over Bassett's desk in "North Fork" there's a large painting of a goal-tender, the last line of defense, the masked man called upon when all else fails. It was his position as a kid, and the painting represents the career his father squelched. It also represents one of the last times the old man was able to make a decision for his headstrong son. Since then Bassett has spent a large portion of his life getting out from under the considerable shadow of his father, who is still likely to telephone CFTO late at night with a caustic complaint if a technician has slipped up for a moment. About 25 years ago father and son were a doubles team in some inconsequential tennis tournament. The father was keyed up, thinking he and his world-class son had a lock on winning. But young John was then at the top of his game and hardly interested in country club doubles. He played indifferently, and they lost. His chagrined father sulked and complained. Fed up with the old man's carping, the son hauled off and socked him in the eye. Big Dome was flabbergasted. "He went out and got drunk for three days," the son recalls.
Nowadays when The Rebel plays, he plays to win. When he and Eby pair up to play high-stakes golf, they often don't bother to collect, even if they win. For Bassett, the winning is the important thing. Last April, when Carling lost to Evert Lloyd, a female friend made the mistake of turning to Bassett and saying, "Maybe it's the best thing." To Bassett that was loser's talk and an insult. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he snapped. "If you were a man, I'd belt you."
Lone men, lone women. Stand up for what you believe in. That sort of determination caused a lot of misery—but helped set the stage for Carling—a decade ago. Two years after the WHA was launched in 1971, Bassett persuaded his father, his brothers and the Eatons to invest and a year later got them into the fledgling WFL. Things went bad from the start. Bassett's WFL Toronto Northmen never got off the ground, and his WHA Toronto Toros blew $4 million in three seasons. Newspapers had made the Bassetts powerful. Television had made them rich. Now it looked as though sports would do the unthinkable: cut them down to the size of ordinary people.
The others wanted to cut their losses and get out. Bassett said he'd go it alone. He moved the Toros to Birmingham and renamed them the Bulls, shifted the Northmen to Memphis and renamed them the Southmen; he sold off shares in both teams to local investors.
The Bulls took hold, and by the time the NHL absorbed the WHA in 1979, Birmingham was a solid franchise. Bassett received a nice settlement in the merger. That plus returns from real estate and other investments kept him afloat and helped pay off nearly half a million dollars in WFL debts.
A byproduct of the arduous episode was that Bassett was now operating south of the border. He reveled in the looser social structure of the U.S. and, for a freewheeling businessman, it was the major leagues. He was on his own now, adrift from the family and the patrician set back in Toronto.
At about this time Bassett learned he had skin cancer. He dismisses the whole thing now as inconsequential, but back then he was frightened, and the scar that covers a quarter of his back indicates his condition was serious. He needed a second operation, a bad sign, and came home a different man. Says a friend, "He realized his only roots were his family."
Bassett grew a beard, forgot about business for a while and turned to sailing. Most of his time was spent at his home in Sarasota, where he could look out his back window at palm trees, a snow white beach and the Gulf of Mexico. If you ask him what else he did while he was recuperating he says, "Nothing." But his real project was Carling.
She had taken up tennis at the age of nine, when her grandmother gave her a $5 racket purchased in a drugstore. She had short hair, big teeth and bit her lower lip when she swung. Tommy Terrific she was called, because she was a tomboy and because she had guts. Bassett admits, "Carling had an almost psychotic fear of failure."
Late in 1979 Carling lost in the first round of the main draw of a 12-and-under tournament and then blew her first match in the consolation flight. She came home with a rueful look on her face. "I want to be a real tennis player," she told her father. Years before someone had asked Rod Laver what advice he could give a Canadian who wanted to learn tennis. Laver answered, "Get out of Canada." Bassett deposited Carling on Bollettieri's doorstep. In fact, she moved into his house. In the beginning, the feeling around the tennis academy was that Carling was good but would fade. She was cute and wealthy. Life was too easy. Tennis would be too hard.
"That's where people were wrong," says Bollettieri. Bassett had given Bollettieri a mandate. "Make her ground-strokes perfect," he told him. He also donated a bus so the academy would have tournament transportation, helped out with scholarship money and even put in a tennis court at Bollettieri's home. Bollettieri in turn gave Carling a four-page, single-spaced letter, a manifesto for the road to Wimbledon. It spoke of love, dedication, sacrifice, and "destroying your best friend on the court."
Carling went through tennis shoes as though the soles were butter. She worked hard and didn't give up. Kathy Rinaldi, six months older, won 12 straight games from her. "But," her father remembers, "Carling came home and said, 'A lot of the games went to deuce.' " She worked harder. Her schedule from 1979 to '82: up at 6:30 a.m.; breakfast at 7; school at 8:30; on the bus back to the academy at 12:30 p.m., lunch on the way; practice from 1:30 to 5; jog three to five miles; do sprints; perform agility drills; do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups; take a shower; eat dinner at 6:15; hit the books. No TV. No radio. No phone calls. Lights out at 10 p.m. after an hour's break for snacks and gossip. She told a reporter, "I know other kids have more fun, but I want to be somebody when I'm older."
People like Wayne Gretzky, one of her heroes, sent her telegrams of encouragement. Her mother told her that when she made Wimbledon, she could have her ears pierced. And one day she beat her father for the first time. It was about then that John stopped combing his hair forward to cover a receding hairline. It was as if he was saying, "I'm older now. Why fight the inevitable?"
Carling developed an all-court game. From her hyper father she gained a love for the quick ending, for knocking off a winner at the net. Bollettieri, in effect, was her second father, and completely different. He is dogged and resolute, with weary eyes scored by veins, and his voice rasps and croaks. He sleeps only a few hours a night and never seems to wear out. He's a baseliner, and now Carling can play that game, too.
In 1981, at 13, she had cracked the world Top 10 in the junior rankings, a tribute to her financial resources as much as to her forehand, because she could afford to travel to the tournaments. In 1982, at 14, she won the JAL Cup, a major juniors event in Japan, a sign of things to come.
She also made her movie debut, to the delight of The Hollywood Reporter and folks back in Canada, who began comparing her with another Canadian, Mary Pickford, who became America's sweetheart more than 60 years ago. Her near upset of Evert Lloyd was front-page news in Canada. She got fan mail addressed to "Carling Bassett, Tennis Player, Toronto," which helped reaffirm her sense of nationality.
Last Christmas, Carling, now 15 and one of the best junior girl players in the world, won the Orange Bowl 18s and turned professional. It was a tough call for her father, letting go of his daughter, but he remembered when he was 15, itching to play hockey. Don't think he didn't worry about Carling turning pro. He had tried to give her the best of everything, and now she was going out to earn a paycheck and punch an athletic time clock, to be a kid in an adult game. There would be people asking her opinion on El Salvador simply because she could rip a winner crosscourt.
One day, driving down the road with Carling beside him, Bassett was musing about such potential difficulties when they passed some public tennis courts. Carling stared at them and said thoughtfully, "You know, I love tennis so much I just like to look at tennis courts." Bassett knew then that everything would be all right.
Actually, better than that. Many of his friends are going bald, too, and Bassett walks with a limp from his knee operations, but he has Carling to play his games for him, to take care of the winning and losing. Competing, that's his concept of reality. Sometimes he'll be at home in Canada, and the phone will ring from thousands of miles away.
"Hi, Car-Car," Bassett will say, loud enough for visitors to hear. "That's great. You're going to the mall with Ricky? To a movie? Say, you know who likes you, who thinks you're great? Lee Majors.... He's a little old for you? Really? You know, he's the same age as Dads. Oh? I look younger? Thanks, Car...."
Whenever Bassett and his daughter are together—two kids who will never grow up—the talk inevitably turns to the same subject. Bassett tells Carling his dream: to take six months off and traipse around the world watching her play tennis. The prospect always leaves Carling bubbly. "Would you really do that?" she says. "Would you?"
"I'm going to do it," her father answers.
Then there will be a pause. You can almost see Carling thinking: I'll get so good that he'll have to do it. One more wish—this time upon a twinkling father rather than a star—and then she really will have it all.
On the court Dad was a Davis Cupper; off it he clings to tennis by supporting the career of Carling, now ranked among the top 30 in the world.
The routine at Bollettieri's keeps Carling on her toes, but it still leaves her enough time to test her bubbly personality on boys.
Backed by Burt and pal, Bassett aims to plug the Bandits.
This spring, while John was in Toronto with (from left) Heidi, Damien, Vickie and Johnny...
...Susan traveled to, among other places, Eastbourne, England to watch Carling's career bloom.
A powerful forehand and excellent footwork are helping Carling rocket to the top of her racket.
As a reporter for The Toronto Telegram, Bassett had an eye for hot stories.
A 1954 formal portrait of three generations of John Bassetts.